Has your drinking increased during the pandemic? How to know and what to do

A lot of people drink alcohol on a regular basis to relax or socialize. But if your drinking increased in amount or frequency during the pandemic, you are not alone.

According to a poll by the American Psychological Association, one in four people drank more than usual during the pandemic to cope with stress. Other studies show the frequency of drinking during the pandemic rose 14%, and women increased their heavy drinking days by 41% when compared to pre-pandemic habits.

The problem is that increased pandemic drinking did not necessarily decrease as things opened up, says David Gunn, MD, primary care physician at Westlake Village Triunfo Primary and Specialty Care. “People who were already drinking before the pandemic started to drink a little more or a little more often,” he says. “Now it’s either become a regular habit or maybe the drinking is heavier.”

Increasing how often or how much you drink doesn’t automatically make you an alcoholic or dependent on alcohol. But it can mean that you are misusing alcohol or using it in a risky way. The good news is that there is a path back to healthier drinking. Here’s what you need to do:

Know how much alcohol is too much

To reduce the chances of developing an alcohol use disorder, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) offers guidelines for low-risk drinking. They define a “standard drink” as containing 0.6 fluid ounces or 14 grams of pure alcohol, and their recommendations include:

  • Women: One drink or less daily
  • Men: Two drinks or less daily

The NIAAA defines binge drinking as having more than five drinks (for men) or four drinks (for women) over two hours. Keep in mind that alcohol use exists on a spectrum. Some people occasionally use alcohol in a risky way and never develop a problem. But when alcohol misuse becomes a regular occurrence, it may be cause for concern.

Understand the risks of drinking alcohol

Drinking alcohol too often or too much increases your chances of developing alcoholism or having an accident, such as a fall or motor vehicle accident. It also puts you at greater risk for liver disease, heart disease, cancer and early cognitive decline. 

Women need to be aware that they absorb more alcohol and metabolize it differently than men. Their health risks are also greater than men’s risks, meaning women will suffer health effects of alcohol sooner and after less alcohol consumption. Even low levels of alcohol use result in a higher risk of breast cancer.

Assess your alcohol use

Dr. Gunn says every person who drinks should assess their alcohol use. A few simple questions can give you an idea whether you should be concerned about your drinking habits. Ask yourself:

Do you think you have a problem?

If the answer is yes, then you need to make some changes or seek some help. “If you think you have a problem, you should listen to your instincts,” Dr. Gunn says. “You’re likely misusing alcohol and need to figure out the reason.”

Do you drink every day?

According to Dr. Gunn, two out of three people usually don’t drink every day. If you are drinking every day, that may be a sign you should talk to your primary care physician.

Has a loved one or spouse said something about your drinking?

If a loved one, roommate or spouse has said something about the amount you are drinking, try not to get defensive. It may be a good indication you need to change your habits or see your doctor.

Are you drinking more than two drinks on any one occasion?

Having more than two drinks on occasion (more than one for women) does not mean you have a drinking problem. But if it happens regularly, it may be a sign of an issue.

Dr. Gunn also stresses the importance of knowing exactly how many “standard drinks” are in each drink you have. The NIAAA’s drinking calculators can help determine how much alcohol is really in your cocktail, bottle of wine or ballpark beer.

Do you have a history of addictive behaviors?

If you have a history of addictive behavior, such as substance use or food addiction, drinking may be filling that space for you. “It’s common to substitute one addiction for another,” says Dr. Gunn. “Addictive people tend to pick up addictive behaviors easily.”

Work to cut back on drinking

Many people believe they can reduce their drinking or change their habits without professional help. If you want to try on your own, Dr. Gunn recommends giving yourself a time limit of three weeks to see if you can put healthier drinking habits into place.

“For about 75% of my patients, I advise them to set goals and cut back, and they do fine,” Dr. Gunn says. “But not everyone can do that. Some have good intentions but find themselves unable to follow through. Those patients may need the support of a professional.”

If you need outside support, look to your PCP or a therapist – both typically have training in alcohol and substance abuse. They’ll support your goals and can connect you with community resources, such as Reducing Alcohol in Neighborhoods (RAIN) in Westlake Village. This local program, run by Dr. Gunn, and others like it offer a safe space to talk about your drinking, assess your habits and get help with your issue.

If you need help assessing or reducing the amount you drink, your primary care physician can provide the support and resources that you need.


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